William Kerley’s staging of Mozart’s 1786 opera Le nozze di Figaro is the fifth time that British Youth Opera have produced this much-loved piece since their second summer season in 1988. One can see why it’s such an appealing choice for a youthful cast, with its dazzling music, balance of wit and pathos and, as Peter Robinson explains in the programme notes, Mozart, who died at the early age of 35, often wrote music with his favourite young singers in mind. Many of the ridiculously talented and accomplished cast members have at least one degree under their belts, offering a very high level of professionalism combined with youthful ebullience. Despite usually being an avid note taker, this was one occasion in which I had to put my notebook and pen away and immerse myself in the music.
Based on the second play in Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy, the Count and Countess Almaviva’s honeymoon is long over and the skirt-chasing Count, overcome with lust for his valet Figaro’s fiancée Susanna, wants to reinstate the barbaric feudal practice of a master having the right to ravish his female servants before their wedding. Meanwhile, the domineering Marcellina regards Figaro has her own property, and, aided by her henchman Dr Bartolo, plans to force him into marrying her by using incomprehensible legal jargon. Matters become fearfully complicated until, after much confusion, hiding behind furniture and a number of white lies, everyone is united with the right partner.
Taking place against a traditional pre-revolutionary, eighteenth century setting, the production is lovely to look at and the costumes are the stuff of costume drama dreams. The set (by Matthew Wright) comprising a series of linked window frames is cleverly assembled, with David Howe’s lighting creating a beautifully sun-dappled effect – which could be a metaphor for the entire production.
Matthew Stiff is a rich-voiced and likable Figaro, paired with Ellie Laugharne, who sparkles as the clever and mischievous Susanna. Eleanor Dennis gives a touching and sumptuously sung portrayal of the Countess, worn down by the thankless task of being a devoted and faithful wife, and strengthened by her capacity to love. There’s a natural and easy rapport between the two sopranos, creating a warm mistress-servant relationship and their voices blend together beautifully. Rather than being overtly lecherous, John Savournin effectively communicates the Count’s oily sense of entitlement, with a persuasive and somewhat menacing baritone. Katie Bray charmingly conveys household pet Cherubino’s adolescent love-struck confusion, dressed up as a solider with a bucket for a helmet and broom for a sword. There’s also strong support from Sioned Gwen Davies’s ample Marcellina, a villainess who becomes a benefactress, and Thomas Faulkner as her loyal sidekick.
It isn’t a short evening at three and a half hours (including interval), but it fizzes along under Alexander Ingram’s conducting and Southbank Sinfonia’s playing. Kerley’s direction is perhaps a little coy in regard to the opera’s subversive aspects, eschewing revolutionary zeal in favour of sunshine, but complements the buoyant and playful approach. As the Almaviva household enjoy the spectacle of a firework display, ending this day of madness on an entirely joyous note seems completely apt, as all the young people involved in the production deserve to have many more ahead of them.
British Youth Opera’s Summer Season plays at the Peacock Theatre until September 10th. For full details, please click here.